The Rise of Western Power: A Comparative History of Western Civilization has just published in the US and is out in the UK - so we interviewed its author, Jonathan Daly about the book, his current research, and dinner with Abraham Lincoln.
What specific areas or themes of history interest you and why?
My specialized university studies in philosophy taught me the powerful impact of ideas in historical development. Intellectual systems and theories often shape people’s actions more than material circumstances. Karl Marx declared in the Communist Manifesto that the "history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”—and millions of his followers acted on this over-simplified and not-seldom fallacious assumption. Aside from intellectual history, I am fascinated by the dynamic tensions between society and individual and between state and society. All of my research revolves around these broad themes.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
Modern life is materially comfortable and personally fulfilling because Western societies figured out how to unbridle humanity’s inherent creativity.
When did you start researching for this book?
You could say I started compiling data over twenty years ago, when I began regularly teaching the Western Civilization (and later a world history) course at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I wondered how we got to our modern Western societies with lightning-fast technological development, extensive civil rights, limited government, broad political participation, and blistering economic growth. Having read countless detailed monographs, primary sources, and interpretations of the “Rise of the West,” I concluded that what distinguished Europe from other developed cultures was almost continuous change in every aspect of life. It was as if European societies refused to accept the status quo, constantly sought improvement. That was the mechanism, but what was the motive force? When a couple of friends shared their knowledge of evolutionary biology, I found the answer: just as in every member of a species a random genetic variation may emerge, so every member of a human society may attempt a random innovation. Throughout history human innovation has run up against institutional barriers, but less so in Western societies. Happily the barriers have been falling around the world in recent decades.
Which part of writing a book have you enjoyed most?
I love the excitement of intellectual creativity, when the Muse somehow enables one to grasp and express ideas that make sense of difficult questions and vast research. Sharing thoughts with friends and colleagues and gaining fresh insights from conversation with them is equally enjoyable.
Any tips for people reading the book?
Read the Prologue carefully and keep in mind that I believe human beings in the aggregate are by nature innovative: we instinctively seek ways to make life better, easier, richer, happier. What enabled more people in Western societies to express their innate creativity was the multiplicity of competing authorities and the constant tensions and competition among them, all mediated by strong institutions and political ideas that descended in part from ancient Greece and Rome. It helped that Europe enjoyed a most favourable geographical situation: sufficiently close to the great civilizations of Asia to learn from them but also far enough distant to avoid conquest.
Where will your research go from here?
My current project is a comprehensive history of Soviet collectivization under Stalin. It will draw on the profusion of monographs and published primary sources appearing since the collapse of Communism and the opening of the archives in the USSR. Formerly classified documents have enabled scholars to illuminate many aspects of Stalin’s agrarian policies—forcing tens of millions of peasants into servitude, exiling millions of “rich peasants” to sparsely inhabited regions, and the resultant catastrophic famine—but none has told this story in its totality. What emerges from the sources is that implementing collectivization begot the Stalinist system with its systematic and habitual coercion for ordinary political purposes, police terror, central hierarchical control, mass subordination and passivity, shortages of consumer goods and a low standard of living for most people, intensive labour, mutual distrust, weak social institutions, and the channelling of vast resources into grandiose building projects and military power.
One can say that Stalinism was the “anti-West,” not just because of ideological opposition, but even more because it had a contrary approach to society: not an ever greater unleashing of human creativity but an ever greater control over it.
If you could have dinner with one world leader, past or present, which would it be?
Abraham Lincoln is the leader I’d be most thrilled to dine with. To fight a war of such magnitude in large part to eradicate slavery makes him a leader perhaps unique in world history. The honour of sharing a meal with him would be overwhelming.
For more information and details on how to buy the book or request an examination copy, go to http://www.bloomsbury.com/the-rise-of-western-power-9781441161314/